20 year content strategy veteran, Sharon Burton. Sharon Burton consults about content strategy, content business issues, social media and managing post-sales customer experience issues.

Are you communicating to your audience? Or with them?

Are you communicating to your audience? Or with them?

I was browsing several vendor websites over the weekend and wound up laughing at the content marketing strategy, which, in this case, was not good.

As I was reading one vendor’s site, it occurred to me the reading level was very high. I copied the content into Word and ran the Reading Level scan. I was not at all surprised to find the Flesch score was 8 and the Flesch-Kincaid was 18. (I didn’t have the SMOG on, but I bet that was really high, too.)

Scores aren’t everything but they’re a lot

So what do those scores mean? It means:

  • Flesch=8 -> Best read by advanced University graduates
  • Flesch-Kincaid=18 ->Best understood by people with a 18th grade reading level. That’s Masters level, in case you were wondering.

In other words, you should be Masters level college graduate to understand the web content this vendor has about their products. And here’s why that’s bad:

It’s too hard to understand.


No one is going to work that hard to find out about your products.

What’s your problem?

People reading your website (or your marketing materials or your product content) are scanning to find out something. They are not typically reading to learn as though they are being tested later, perhaps on the mid-term. Your audience is reading to find out something or understand why they should be interested in you.

A reading score of Masters?

You’re not that interesting. You’re just not.

People who are reading your marketing content are looking for something – to be entertained, fill in knowledge gaps, discover if your product suits a purpose, or figure out how to do something. And then they want to get on with their day.Content marketing clowns

They’re not interested in your ability to construct complex sentences with advanced vocabulary. You’re showing off and no one is interested. You’re like that creepy guy at the bar who makes sure everyone sees his black Amex card and his Porsche key ring. People roll their eyes and then walk away.

He’s not that interesting. He’s just not.

On a website, they go to your competition to take a look at what they have to say. And if the competition has bothered to to create marketing content that communicates so normal humans can understand, guess who gets the business?

Are you showing off to your customers?

I’m not saying that you should set your sails to these Reading scores. What I’m saying is you should take a look at these scores for your content. If your content consistently is giving you scores like this, you have a problem.

You should be writing at about a 5th to 8th grade level in all your content. Not because people are stupid, because it’s easy to understand. 25 words or less in your sentences, 3 to 5 sentences in a paragraph.

And that problem is probably showing up with a high bounce rate on your website and your message is confused (people ask basic questions when you talk to them). And fewer Requests for Information come in. And eventually, lower sales than you think you should be doing.

Because no one can understand you. The burden of communicating about your products is on you, not on your audience.

(This article scores Flesch=73.2 and Flesch-Kinkaid=5.9)

To find out more about effective communication, go here to see the recording of a webinar that will help. Or here to see the slides. Or here to sign up for the next time I give that webinar live.

By Sharon Burton


  1. A pity nobody (except Rhonda) took the time to read Ginny Redish’s article “Understanding the limitations of readability formulas” published by the IEEE Professional Communication Society in 1981.
    Excerpt: “A formula that counts only sentence length and word length or familiarity of the word is not sensitive to the order of the words or the complexity of the grammar. Sentences with misplaced clauses, dangling participles, or misused words will score as well on a readability formula as sentences of equal length that have none of these problems”.

    Does it make sense to base a blog article on erroneous data and methods?

    • Sharon Burton

      The vendor was writing english sentences that made sense but the reading level was very high. These tools are a way – and not the only way – to find out about the reading level.

      Yes, as with everything, Ginny is right. However, I didn’t say the writing was incomprehensible or full of writing errors – this article is about reading levels and talking to your audience in an appropriate level, given how people are seeking information.

      I assume a basic ability to create sensible english sentences around what we do. If we can’t do that, we have many giant problems that reading level targets can’t address.

      Marie-Louise, you’ve been very critical about me in SlideShare and then here. Is there a problem we need to work out? I’m curious because I don’t know why you seem to be so critical of me. Let me know and let’s see if we can work it out.

  2. Great reminder, Sharon. But reading scores only tell half the story. Even if you achieve a low grade level, the sentence still has to make sense, and Word’s reading score function just can’t figure this out (I suspect other software that tests reading scores may also fail at this). For example: ‘Cat mat the on sat the’ scores the SAME reading score as ‘The cat sat on the mat’ but one makes sense and the other is just a mishmash of words. See this blog post of mine from a few years ago:http://cybertext.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/the-problem-with-readability-scores/

    • Sharon Burton

      I completely agree with you, Rhonda. Basic coherent writing is essential, too.

  3. “They are not typically reading to learn as though they are being tested later, perhaps on the mid-term. Your audience is reading to find out something or understand why they should be interested in you.”

    I’ve been researching doc tools, and this is exactly what I’m seeing, too. I don’t have unlimited time (or patience), and it’s very easy for me to bounce to another website.

    Thanks for putting this into words.

    • Sharon Burton

      And Neal, you don’t have time to parse all that exotic content. No one does. If the vendor can’t easily explain to you what they do, it makes you wonder if they understand it?

      And if all your communication with them is going to be that hard, it really goes to that customer experience I’m harping so much on lately.

  4. Valerie McCord

    Writing about the really, really technical stuff is always most difficult for me, like when the difference between “configuration” and “setting” has a marked impact on meaning for the developer. I tested some of my own instructions and was relieved to discover my writing wasn’t too snooty. Thanks for the reminder to run things through the reading level scan.

    • Sharon Burton

      I think some big words are not awful but when all your content is graduate school level, well, I think there’s an issue.

      Especially for the Getting to Know You content, like marketing and website content.

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